The Australasian Miners Federation

On March 10th, 1916 the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation (ACSEF) was registered.  From that day, and for the following 75 years the Miners Federation was recognised as being the pre-eminent union of the Australian coal industry.  In short, the word Australasian in the Miners Federation’s registered title is a recognition, that during 1913 the New Zealand coal miners had agreed to work cooperatively with their Australian counterparts, in any industrial struggles.  The Miners Federation; often referred to as ‘the Federation’ was quite correctly seen as one of Australia’s most militant and successful industrial unions.

Early Miners’ Federation Banner

The organisational structure adopted by the Miners Federation was based upon the “Lodge system” used for generations by the coal miners of the British Isles, the ‘National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM).  This was not an unexpected situation, for from the Australian coal reserves first being worked, the industry was manned by convicts sent out from” Mother England”!  Many of these convicts had experience with the advantages of the Lodge system, because prior to being transported to the colony, they had worked as coal miners in the British Isles.

The Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation membership saw the Lodge system in a similar light and formulated immutable policies to ensure the Federation membership had absolute control over policy direction and implementation.

Prime amongst those policies, was compulsory membership, and secret ballots of the membership for the filling of leadership positions, from Lodge level through to the national level.  Both ensured to the extent possible the complete participation of financial members of the Federation in the election of officials at each level of the organisation.  Notably during the tenure of the Miners Federation participation rates averaged 94%.

Philosophy of the Miners’ Federation

Philosophically, the Miners’ Federation was aligned with that of Karl Marx – “Workers Owning the Means of Production” – a philosophy ridiculed for decades by government, employer and some labour organisations.  Yet one achieved by the Miners’ Federation in 1975 when they became the owner of the Nymboida Mine.

Ideologically

The Miners’ Federation was for the greater percentage of its existence aligned with Socialism.  At various other times, Communist elements held sway as did “Left Labor”.  The Miners’ Federation’s association with the Communist Party although but a dim memory of decades past, would often be relied upon by conservative governments and the coal industry associations, to cast aspersions on the leadership of the union.

Even in the late 1980s the leaders of the Federation had to put up with puerile accusations by coal industry employer representatives as being “puppets controlled on a daily basis from Moscow”!

Aims of the Membership

Irrespective of the ideological inclinations of some leaders of the Federation from time to time the membership expected, and received, strong and visionary leadership in the pursuance of goals they (the membership), had set.  First and foremost, of those goals was improved conditions of employment, including

  • safer and healthier working environments
  • shorter hours
  • nationalisation of the industry.
  • security of employment
  • paid holidays
  • sick pay
  • long service leave
  • workers’ compensation and
  • a liveable pension upon retirement.

As with every other item included in any Log of Claims issued on the coal companies by the Miners’ Federation over the 75 years of its existence, all of the above and more, were never gifted by the coal companies, “they had to be hard fought for”!

History records the commitment of the Miners’ Federation in defending what it had, while seeking to achieve more, in several notable instances.  At Rothbury Mine on the morning of December 16th, 1929, following the NSW government employing FEDFA men to “scab” on the Miners’ Federation, members of the community protesting outside the wire boundary fence of the mine, entered onto the company property where they were set upon by the police.  Fifty people were wounded and one, Norman Brown, fatally wounded.  In the 1949 general strike four Miners’ Federation leaders were given prison sentences for refusing to provide information relating to whereabouts of the Miners’ Federations’ cash resources.

Health and Safety

Prior to the Coal Industry Acts (mirrored legislation by both the Federal and New South Wales governments), becoming operational in 1947/8, conditions for coal miners in NSW were abysmal.  In 1945 only two coal mines provided a bath-house for their employees, and the ventilation of many of the NSW mines was inadequate. As the miners were working under a “piece rate” system, airborne dust was unfortunately not always given the attention it warranted.

Dust related diseases such as pneumoconiosis and emphysema were an ever-present health threat.  The age of miners in NSW was also an element with a potential for industry health and safety problems.  The death in 1946, of two former Corrimal Mine employees within hours of each other, was the catalyst for over 2000 coal miners to march on the NSW parliament, demanding action which initiated health and safety reforms.   With the arrival of the Joint Coal Board Medical Bureau in 1947, and the work of the Joint Coal Board’s Standing Committee on Dust, by the 1990s, the NSW coal industry was the world leader in eradicating the “Miners Dust” disease. `

In 1940 following continuing industrial disruption led by the Miners’ Federation over dust related disease and other work environment concerns; the NSW government set up a ‘Special Royal Commission on Pensions’.  Chaired by Mr. Justice Ferguson the Royal Commission established that approximately 1,700 of the NSW coal miners were aged 60 years and over.  179 of these were aged over 70 with one aged 89!  The Miners’ Federation saw the findings as supporting their expressed concerns over the health problems in the workplaces, and the need for a pension system to enable older mine workers, to move off into retirement.

Mr. Justice Ferguson’s recommendations included the implementation of a compulsory retirement age of 60, with a liveable pension as a means of compensating those attaining the age of 60.  These recommendations were subsequently legislated, as ‘The Coal and Shale Mineworkers Pension Act of 1941’.

Nationalisation  

This was one of the few agenda items never achieved by the Miners’ Federation.  However, it can be said that had the industry become nationalised, as visualised by the Federation, many of the current energy and environmental issues may well have been significantly reduced.

The Miners’ Federation was a constant advocate for improved resource husbanding, and research and development into alternative and innovative uses of coal.  The Federation championed the possibility of “clean coal,” decades before the concept became a political “thought bubble”!  History shows that Germany had in the 1940’s developed a distillation process which turned coal into a liquid fuel. The Federation believed that coal, a vegetable-based mineral, might be able to be converted into a form of food product.

However, the Miners’ Federation’s goal in 1916 of nationalising Australia’s coal industry at this time, has to be seen as a lost cause!

Shorter Working Hours.

The quest for a 35-hour week, 7 hours per day, Monday to Friday was finally achieved in 1979. The Miners’ Federation had been pursuing the 35-hour week almost from day one in 1916, and the demand for a 35-hour week was prominent on all May Day march street banners from the 1920’s, almost to the year it was achieved.

Interestingly, in the late 1970s the National Liaison Committee (NLC), a body established by the Miners’ Federation to nationally encompass almost every union involved in the coal industry to formulate a strategy to win the 35- hour week, had one mining union constantly at odds with the greater majority of the NLC.  That union was the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association (FEDFA).  As a consequence of the increasing development of open-cut operations in the Hunter valley, the FEDFA had been moving quickly to obtain as much coverage as was possible of the open-cut workforce.

The FEDFA constantly frustrated the work of the NLC in campaigning for a 35-hour week 7 hours per day Monday to Friday. The reason for this became apparent when it was learned the FEDFA had been secretly negotiating with the mining companies for a roster which was based upon 12 hour shifts 7 days a week!

Just one of the numerous occasions over the decades where the FEDFA leadership had sought to undermine the Miners’ Federation in the Australian coal industry. The most significant of these being at Rothbury Mine in 1929 when the FEDFA “scabbed” on the Miners’ Federation workforce leading to the incident which took the life of Norman Brown and caused the serious wounding of fifty Miners’ Federation demonstrators.

Security of Employment

The ideal of security of employment while admirable, was never achieved by the Miners’ Federation nor, as the current and prospective state of employment world–wide demonstrates, by anyone else!  It was impossible to obtain in the coal industry when thousands of men hewed coal from the coal seams of the nation, and during the heydays of the mineral boom.  With the use of coal seen as irresponsible by many around the world, logically the demand for coal will reduce.  Current Technologies being trialled and adopted with success, could lead to underground and open-cut miners becoming obsolete and replaced by surface based, computer operators.

Workers’ Compensation

With the establishment of the Joint Coal Board in 1945 under the Coal Industry Acts, coal mine owners in NSW were required to obtain worker’s compensation coverage for employees with Coal Mines Insurance (CMI).

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic approach to claims management by CMI, led to delays in payments being received by injured mineworkers.  Another area of concern was the inadequacy of the facilities provided by CMI to injured workers, when having to attend compensation doctor visits.  For example, despite the financial assets of CMI, workers were expected to line up under carports at various venues, to undergo examinations by the CMI Doctors.

In 1978 the Miners’ Federation held a series of demonstrations outside the JCB offices in Sirius Place Sydney, over both compensation delays, and lack of appropriate facilities for injured workers.  On one such occasion both the JCB and, CMI refused to meet a deputation of unions, led by the Miners’ Federation.

This situation was quickly resolved, when the demonstrators staged a peaceful occupation of Sirius House. It was not too long after Miners’ Federation members had commenced to answer phones, in both the JCB and the CMI areas of Sirius House, that a deputation from the mining unions was invited to undertake some discussions with CMI.

In terms of Award prescriptions under the Mining Award, during the 1980s NSW coal miners were granted because of Miner’s Federation led campaigns:

  • Compensation for six months, as if at work; i.e. shift and classification loadings plus production bonus on the days absent due to incapacity.
  • Six months of ‘Accident Pay” i.e. full wages, classification and shift loadings.

In 1987, the Unsworth NSW government was legislating changes to the Compensation Act that would lead to a drastic reduction in compensation payments. Discussions between Premier Unsworth and the then General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation, resulted in the NSW coal miners being exempted from the proposed changes to workers’ compensation in NSW.

Paid Leave.

The Miners’ Federation, like all other industrial unions had to engage in many campaigns to achieve paid leave, be they statutory public holidays, sick or annual leave and pressing domestic leave.

Annual leave

Members of the Miners’ Federation campaigned for and secured 5 weeks’ of annual leave per annum. One of those weeks, was attached to the Easter Weekend Holiday, a second week to the August school holiday break, and three weeks at Christmas.

Sick leave

Coal industry employees accrued one days paid sick leave for every 22 days worked. Untaken sick leave could be accumulated and cashed in, should a worker decide to do so.

Pressing Domestic leave.

In the event of a pressing domestic need arising, a coal industry worker was entitled to three days of paid leave.

Long Service Leave

The granting of Long Service Leave for mine workers was prominent on the 1949 Log of Claims submitted by the Miners Federation.  History shows, that like all other items in the Log it was rejected by the mine owners and the governments of the day.  This Log of Claims was the catalyst for the nation-wide General Strike – a strike which was to lead to the Federal government putting troops into the coal mines, (causing considerable and expensive levels of damage to the mining equipment).   The 1949 miner’s strike resulted in several Miners’ Federation union leaders being jailed for refusing to “rat” on the union!

The campaigns waged for improvements to the Mining Award were all led by the Miners Federation.  The research department, though small in number of members, was recognised for its high quality of work by the Miners’ Federation leadership, when prosecuting the goals of the Unions membership. When the 1982 ‘Kemira Stay-In’ strike issue came before the Coal Industry Tribunal (CIT), the depth and quality of the research undertaken by the Miners’ Federation research department was paramount in the High Court of Australia rejecting an appeal by BHP against the decision of the CIT in respect to the “Stay in Strike”.

Amalgamation

Contrary to what some may think, the Miners’ Federation was a participant in one amalgamation only.  This amalgamation, as explained below created the UMFA.  In 1993 UMFA was absorbed not amalgamated, into the CFMEU.

The amalgamation in 1990, of the Miners’ Federation with the ‘Federated Mining Mechanics Association of Australasia’, while consistent with the 1916 Manifesto of one coal mining union; brought with it an end to the solidarity, forged for nearly 75 years within the membership of the Miners’ Federation.  Where in the past, the policy ideas of the Miners’ Federation membership set the goals to be achieved, the hierarchy of the United Mineworkers Federation of Australia” (UMFA) in place nationally, enabled the executive of UMFA to control the policy levers by way of it making decisions, and then seeking the endorsement of the UMFA membership.

The UMFA, with its presidential style of leadership, had inverted a structure, which for almost 75 years, had made the Miners Federation one of Australia’s most democratic and industrially effective unions.  This change in style resulted in the 35-hour week, and many other hard-won conditions, being traded off for more money in Workplace Agreements (WAs), totally alien to the principles demonstrated by the Miner’s Federation for almost 75 years!

In 1983, the militancy of the Miners’ Federation, in its opposition to its absorption into the AMWU as demanded by the ACTU, and to the adoption of the ‘Wages and Income Accord’, were the stimulus for moves made to remove the Miners’ Federation from the coal industry scene, a task that took ten years to be achieved.  History shows that the dilution of the Miners’ Federation’s militancy and commitment to ensuring the membership’s ownership of policy direction began in 1990, before it vanished completely with the absorption in 1992, of the UMFA by the CMFEU. An absorption process developed cooperatively by the leadership of UMFA and the Miners’ Federation’s most significant industrial opponent, the FEDFA!

The Mine the Workers Ran.

In 1979 the owner of the Nymboida Mine in northern NSW walked away from the operation owing 30 miners their wages and entitlements, and suppliers of goods and service to the mine unpaid.  The Miners’ Federation took over the ownership of the operation, on the basis that the union would accept all liabilities of the mine’s previous owner.  The Miners’ Federation’s action in taking over the operation saved 30 jobs, for a further 5 years until the reserves of Nymboida were worked out, paid the debts owed to the suppliers of goods and services, and found jobs for the Nymboida men, elsewhere.

United Collieries

As with any other NSW coal proprietor at that time, with an exhausted reserve of coal, the Miners’ Federation was entitled to receive a replacement coal lease.  Despite the almost hysterical opposition from the coal associations and the State opposition, the Wran government granted the Miners Federation a coal lease on Jerry’s Plains near Singleton NSW, which in time became United Collieries.   The Federation willingly signed over to a Trust, especially constructed for the purpose, any prospective income the Miners’ Federation would be entitled to, once United became operational.

The Mineworkers’ Trust.

Since the commencement of United’s operation, the Mineworkers Trust has distributed the millions of dollars which represented the Miners’ Federation’s share of profit from United, to assist worthy community projects or individuals who have successfully met the criteria set by the Trust.  To date, worthy projects within the Illawarra alone, have collectively received close to $500.000 from the Mineworkers Trust – proof positive that when “The Workers Own the Means of Production” magnificent benefits can, and do emerge!

Coal Resources

During its 75 years the Miners’ Federation has been continually confronted by the problems associated with a cyclical industry, such as the coal industry.

Where in 1913/16 the newly emerged Miners’ Federation was calling for the nationalisation of the industry; by the 1960s it had adopted a more pragmatic opinion.  With a burgeoning export-oriented coal industry and the massive expansion of the open-cut industry in Queensland and the Hunter Valley of NSW, the Miners Federation saw a need for the Commonwealth to establish a method of resource husbanding, to ensure among other things, the better planning of the nation’s finite energy resources – an initiative of the Miners’ Federation that received zero interest from Canberra, but was adopted in NSW for a time.

The eventual result was the closing of many viable underground mines that could not compete with the massive open-cuts, in terms of product tonnage and or export market pricing, had valuable high-quality coal reserves, locked away from further extraction following those mine closures. Subsequent approvals enabled the surface areas of these abandoned coal leases to be used for alternative purposes.

Initiatives of the Miners Federation.

The Miners’ Federation developed in the 1960s a “Fuel and Energy Policy”, one which included all known energy sources across Australia, apart from nuclear.  When in opposition the Hawke Labor Party indicated an interest in the policy, but in government declared it unnecessary!  

Support on the Home Front

It is important to note that the Federation could not have achieved as much as it did without the support of the Miners Federation Women’s Auxiliaries.  Scarborough/Wombarra Miners’ Federation Women’s Auxiliary established in 1934, was only the second Women’s Auxiliary of the Miners Federation in Australia.

These women were prominent in every campaign of the Miners’ Federation as far back as the 1920s.  The 15 days “stay- in” in October of 1982 by 30 Kemira miners, protesting the decision of AI&S to issue notices to hundreds of its coal industry workforce, was an example.  Within hours of the action taking place, the women of the miner’s auxiliaries had set up camp kitchens at the tunnel mouth of the mine and were providing other services to the families of the men involved.

Initiatives of the Illawarra Miners’ Federation.

  • 1946:  Dusted Miner Demonstrations commenced by the Corrimal Mine workers.
  • May 1972:  Miners at the South Clifton Colliery became the first coal miners in the western world to take over the operations of a coal mine in protest, to a decision taken by the owner company Clutha, to close the mine and sack the workforce.
  • October 1982:  30 members of the Federation undertook a 15-day stay-in action, in protest to AI&S issuing notice to hundreds of its coal industry workforce – an action which united the Illawarra to take action in Canberra in support of the miners.  It was a stand which also attracted, national and international TV interest.

Leadership from the South.

In the Illawarra and Burragorang Valley regions, the Miners Federation was prominent in many arenas in terms of the role played by the National Executive of the Miners Federation.  During the almost 75 years of its existence, at various times from 1955 through to 1990, a total of seven coal miners from Southern District coal mines were elected onto the National Executive of the Miners Federation.  They were: William (Bill) Parkinson, Walter (Pincher) Smart, and Robert (Bob) Kelly as General Presidents; Robert (Bob) Cram, William (Taffy) Smale and Barry Swan as General Secretaries; and Robert (Bob) Graham as General Vice President.

Barry Swan

May 2018.